Long-term investment needed for long-term resilience
Long-term investment needed for long-term resilience
To support children living in emergencies and protracted crises, long-term sport projects with multi-year investment plans can create meaningful and long-lasting change, strengthening resilience and inclusion.
The number of displaced people globally is at an all-time high—with more than 222 million children living in emergencies and protracted crises and 36 million having been forcibly displaced. Development actors have seen firsthand the positive impact sport has on mental health, wellbeing, and building social cohesion for children living in some of the world’s toughest settings – and yet many sport for development projects are short-term and time-bound.
Like other humanitarian projects, short-term implementation hinders the long-term benefits that sport (and other activities) can nurture, create, and support for communities most at risk and in need. Sport should instead come under the lens of the triple humanitarian-development-peace nexus and be a prioritised investment for multi-year plans, with the involvement of the wider humanitarian-development community and government actors. This will enable crucial integration in available and pre-existing social services, and nurture sustainability.
Street Child - the education and child protection in emergencies specialist agency I work for - together with four local partners, have benefitted from the funding of the UEFA Foundation in Uganda, Mozambique and Cameroon for the last three consecutive years. These are countries with high numbers of refugees, large internal displacement, and active or ongoing conflict.
The vast majority of children living in these areas carry stress, fear, isolation, and anxiety from the disruption to their lives which prohibit their access to education and social activities. Our UEFA sports programmes have therefore integrated vital life-saving and life-sustaining psychosocial support, mental health and wellbeing initiatives, and referral services, using sport as a critical entrance point into wider social services and socio-emotional support for 15, 984 children. At an average cost of just USD $8 per child, our low-cost interventions have created amazing results.
In Uganda’s Palabek refugee camp, 96% of children at the end of our 12-month project said that they liked children from different tribes and 95% said the same about children from a different country. In Mozambique, most of the children actively engaged and participated in sport activities at the end of the project, unlike the first days, where most of them were withdrawn, fearful and timid. Children from different origins mixed and played with each other freely, despite language barriers due to differences in their vernaculars. These results contribute to the evidence on the influence sport can have in building social cohesion and promoting peace.
We also looked at children’s physical and emotional wellbeing, their self-esteem and relationships with family and friends. In each of these areas, we successfully saw an increase in the student’s happiness in Uganda; the physical wellbeing of the learners increased by 23% from baseline to endline. In Cameroon the percentage of children who got along with other children often increased from 48% to 100%, while those often feeling proud of themselves increased from 48% to 95%. Physically, children who felt sick or ill decreased from 65% to 4%. By using sport as a vehicle to also learn about gender norms and child rights, Cameroonian girls who demonstrated at least a good understanding of their rights increased from 57% to 99%. But these results are hard to track in the long term due to the 12-month duration of the projects.
We see sport not as a 'nice to have' extracurricular activity, but instead as a crucial aspect of our resilience, mental health and psychosocial support services. The sport system, especially working with the school system, should ensure that sport is seen as a right and is freely accessible to all, promoting opportunities for inclusion, identifying and mitigating any risks that could come with specific gender and cultural norms, and removing physical and social barriers that challenge the participation of people with disabilities.
Children should be consulted from programme design/start-up to ensure inclusivity and participation. Teachers and coaches, including community volunteers or youth groups, require the knowledge and skills to organise and deliver sport activities in a structured and meaningful way that promotes peace and cohesion while nurturing the child development. In our programmes, the links with schools have also shown a boost in enrolment and attendance, contributing to other long-term education outcomes.
The humanitarian-development community therefore needs committed resources and the prioritisation of long-term sport projects to engage and support children living through emergencies and protracted crises, while working with existing social services and local initiatives that can continue to promote sport as a powerful tool to build a healthy and inclusive society. In short, sport can be used to build back better in displaced populations.
Marcello Viola is the Global Child Protection Specialist at Street Child and is based in Barcelona. He has worked for almost 10 years in emergency settings, leading Street Child responses in Nigeria, Mozambique, and Cameroon. This article is a result of consultations with and contributions from colleagues who worked in the UEFA projects, as Ellen Fitton (East Africa Regional Representative), Kingsley Udo (Cameroon Programme Manager) and Michael Jumo (Mozambique Child Protection Manager).
Jaimie Gregory (Senior Programme Funding Manager) also contributed during the review process.